East End Memories



Click here to see the film trailer in colour and click here to see one in black & white

I made my way down the aisle and managed to find a seat in the centre of the fifth or sixth row. In this way, I would be able to fill my visual field with the contents of the screen. However, there were still all kinds of things to endure before the film began. The only things that I found tolerable were the Newsreel and the trailers. I have absolutely no memory of either of these or of a second feature, if indeed there was one. I also have absolutely no memory of the décor or of its state within the auditorium. I cannot recall the lighting fixtures, whether there were grilles or other forms of decoration either side of the proscenium or whether there was an aisle down the centre of the auditorium or if there were side aisles, and absolutely no memory at all regarding the presence or absence of a circle. What I can remember is that the proscenium curtains were obviously the same and in their original position and had not been sacrificed as they had been at the Essoldo Bethnal Green to accommodate the newly installed widescreen. Evidently the width of the auditorium was greater at the Empress. What I do remember was the condition of the seats. Although I did not find any broken seats during my first visit to the cinema – this was to happen during subsequent visits – I did note that the seats had lost any semblance of plushness and their covering seemed of a hard leatherette material, which appeared cracked and chewed. However, as I have said, I had not come to admire architecture and décor, but rather to sample the charms of the beauties that were soon to appear on the screen.

What I do remember of the auditorium was that it was sparsely populated. Naturally, as is my way, whenever I want to see a film or a play or go to a concert, I assume that everyone is like-minded and that the cinema, theatre or concert hall will be filled to capacity. I also have visions of being jammed between heavy set people who will encroach on my leg area and deny me access of the communal armrest. I enjoy space especially when attending a spectacle. Ideally, I would much prefer empty seats on either side of me, in front of me and especially behind me. I remember reading in a magazine that Elvis Presley would hire a cinema whenever he wanted to see a film. Imagine that, the whole auditorium to oneself! Appealing as this might be, it is somewhat excessive. In my case, perhaps the central part of three rows would suit me well!

I remember buying myself an ice cream. The saleslady was quite charming and I remember that she gave me a smile. I suspect that this was because I had been brought up to always say please when making a request and thank you once accepting a purchase. My friends and their adult were sitting close by. I suspect that they found me somewhat stand offish since I had refused their invitation to join their group. I much preferred to sit where I was and where I was now more than ready to immerse myself in the joys of what was to come.

At last the ice cream lady disappeared and the noise from the gaggle of kids and odd number of adults smattered about the auditorium suddenly was hushed. The lights dimmed slowly and a beam of light appeared from the peephole of the projection room. The curtains slowly parted and the screen was illuminated with the certificate issued by the British Board of Film Censors informing us that I and everyone else were going to see a film that had been passed for our viewing. Now, at last, the film was about to begin. Or was it ……..?

Of incidental interest to me at that time was that prior to the start of the film, 20th Century Fox obviously wanted to demonstrate and show-off the wonders of four-track magnetic stereophonic sound as well those of CinemaScope. As a result, the studio decided to treat the audience to a short concert or rather an overture performed by the huge 20th Century Fox Symphony Orchestra. I had never seen a film begin in such a manner before and remember not relishing the idea now. The musical piece was called Street Scene and had been written for the 1931 film of the same name by the conductor of the studio orchestra, Alfred Newman. I am ashamed to say that the overture bored me beyond words and I found the string section’s sawing on their instruments to be most irritating and totally unnecessary. My criticism was not unique to me. Soon the auditorium was filled with the angry jeers of patrons as impatient as I was for this noise to be over.

At last the orchestra completed its overture and the conductor turned and took his bow. After he turned back to face the musicians, he raised his arms and as he brought them down, the orchestra burst into another jocular piece. My heart sank! Surely we were not going to be treated to an encore! My fears were soon allayed. This time the music was accompanied by a chorus who began to extol the visual virtues of New York City. Suddenly the huge screen (2.55:1 width-to-height aspect) became a mass of colour and began to shimmer and I got my first glimpses of the crisp, clear images of the city’s skyscrapers. I think that it was then that I decided not only to visit this place as soon as possible but to live there one day.

The film, How to Marry a Millionaire, told the story of three young women, who club together to rent a fabulous apartment in the fanciest part of New York City in the hope of finding rich husbands. The screenplay was written by Nunnally Johnson and based on two plays, The Greeks Had a Word for It and Loco and was directed by Jean Negulesco. I remember hearing at one time that the story had been filmed earlier in 1936, as Ladies in Love, and had a stellar cast including Janet Gaynor, Loretta Young and Constance Bennett as the ladies along with Don Ameche, Paul Lukas and Tyrone Power as the men and received only mild success. However, How to Marry a Millionaire was given the full treatment with lavish sets, a sterling cast including those bringing in support and, of course, CinemaScope. Once I saw the film’s advertisement in the newspaper, I wanted to see it, but once I saw its trailer, I was captivated and could not wait to see it.

Ladies in Love and How to Marry a Millionaire

How to Marry a Millionaire is of interest to film buffs on several levels. Firstly, although it went into production after The Robe, it became the first to be completed in the new process. Secondly, like The Robe, it received its British premiere at an Odeon cinema. However, unlike The Robe, which had opened with much hype at the Odeon Leicester Square, it opened at the Odeon Marble Arch, which was not in the heart of London’s West End. Soon after this, 20th Century Fox leased the Carlton Haymarket and the Rialto Coventry Street to showcase their latest productions and continued to do so for a number of years. Thirdly, the film was a vehicle to show off the obvious talents of three of the top leading ladies of the time: Betty Grable, the one-time Queen of the Lot; Marilyn Monroe, the studio’s current hottest property; and Lauren Bacall, whom I did not know of at the time and had not seen any of her films. That joy was to come later.

Odeon Leicester Square (top left), Odeon Marble Arch (top right),
Carlton Haymarket (bottom left) & Rialto Coventry Street (bottom right)

The film’s screenplay contains several supposedly amusing references to the husbands of Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable and delivered by them. At the time of my first viewing of the film, both references went over my head. Incidentally, the famous comment by the American writer Dorothy Parker, men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses was purposely changed by the screenwriter for Marilyn Monroe to deliver. This she did as, you know, men are seldom attentive to girls who wear glasses. Believe it or not, I remember thinking once she had delivered her line and removed her spectacles and promptly walked into a wall, that she had misquoted it. What I am still at a loss to explain is how it was that I knew of Ms Parker’s remark at that time!

How to Marry a Millionaire inspired a television series between 1957 and 1959. There were apparently fifty-two thirty-minute episodes made in black and white starring Barbara Eden, of I Dream of Jeannie fame, playing the Marilyn Monroe role, Lori Nelson playing the Betty Grable role and Merry Anders as the Lauren Bacall character. I am told that the series is fondly remembered by some. A little later in 1961, How to Marry a Millionaire became the first film to be shown on American primetime television when it was used to premier the series NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. In 1968, the film inspired an episode of the television series, I Dream of Jeanie, called How to Marry an Astronaut. According to a source on the Internet, the story-line of How to Marry a Millionaire has been purchased by Nicole Kidman, which could mean that a remake is in the offing.

Barbara Eden, Lori Nelson & Merry Anders;
Barbara Eden as Jeannie; Barbara Eden, today

I cannot say that I was overwhelmed by the film. I enjoyed it, I have to admit. There were certain images and scenes that I liked immediately, but on the whole, I cannot say that it became an instant favourite. Marilyn Monroe looked beautiful, especially when one was treated to multiple views of her when she looked at herself in the many mirrors present in a Ladies Powder Room of a night club. She wore a magenta-coloured evening gown that accentuated her form. Betty Grable was somewhat wasted in the film, I thought, since she was never seen in a glamorous manner. She was her usual happy-go-lucky self and as a result was not disappointing. This was the first time that I had seen Lauren Bacall and I found her to be less than interesting. She was not particularly beautiful. Nor was she glamorous, I felt. Her role was bigger than the others and this did not please me at all. I was also not aware of William Powell, who plays one of her suitors and who almost marries her. Of the suitors, only David Wayne was interesting since he proved to be the perfect comedic foil for Ms Monroe. I actually laughed out loud when he returned to the apartment with an arm in plaster!

The film ends with three marriages with each finding their ideal partner. The final scene takes place in a diner and in a manner that I would later learn to be typical of Americans. Americans spend their lives trying to make it. They want to live in good areas, they want to drive the best automobiles and they want their kids to meet the right people, yet they want to be seen as being just plain folks. Hence many university professors own a small pick-up truck, Wall Street Brokers will dress down at weekends and politicians will be seen in diners. This is done to give the impression that despite success, they have not changed and are still the same simple folk they would like you to believe they once were.

Once the film ended, or rather once its ending became apparent, just about everyone leapt up and ran to the exit. That is everyone, but me. I developed the habit of staying upon the final credit, much to the annoyance of a number of companions over the years, has left the screen. My friends and their adult were among the first to reach the exit and were gone before any passing greeting could be exchanged.

Once the curtains met to cover the screen, I got up to leave the theatre. I remember that it was not dark yet, but dusk was falling rapidly. Outside, I walked down to the Regal, which used to be on the corner between Well Street and Cambridge Heath Road and waited for the 653 Trolleybus.

What amazes me still is that, as a child, I don’t remember ever waiting long for a bus. There seemed to be many more buses. They used to travel in twos and sometimes even in threes. I suspect that there were more buses then since few people travelled by car and public transport was the normal way to get around. When the bus came, I went inside, as the lower deck used to be called, paid my fare and went over in my mind what I was going to tell my parents should they ask how I had spent my afternoon.

I have to confess that despite my efforts to concentrate on my story for my parents, my thoughts were being constantly interrupted with images of Marilyn Monroe. The film cemented my admiration for her that begun when I saw Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and has continued ever since. I remember that taught me that I was as equally taken with her wearing glasses as I was with her not wearing them. However, I must say that I was especially taken with her in that magenta gown.

I got off the bus two stops before my actual stop, as I did not want to risk my parents seeing me cross Cambridge Heath Road at the Mile End Gate. This was, and still is, an especially busy and dangerous intersection and if my parents were to believe that I had gone to a friend’s house and then to the Forester’s cinema, I would have had no reason to be on the other side of the street. I had no trouble crossing the road and did so in the company of an old lady who actually offered to help me cross.

By the time I arrived home, my parents were busy getting ready to open the shop for evening sales and so did not question me in any depth, mercifully. Once I got upstairs to my room, I have to confess to feeling a little guilty about having to keep secret how I had spent my afternoon. Still, as I said, desperate needs call for desperate measures. But beware, no matter how clever you may think you are, one day the truth will be known, and the consequences will have to be faced, but until then, Marilyn Monroe was more than worth a little guilt.



Marilyn Monroe with actor Alex D'Arcy



David Wayne, Cameron Mitchell, Rory Calhoun & William Powell

I would like to thank Mr. Brian Hall and Mr. Kevin Wheelan for their kindness in allowing many of their pictures to be reproduced here.

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